There can be only one: interview with George D Rodger

George D Rodger is a vegan pioneer from Scotland who has been active in the Vegan Society since the early 1990s. But you will find it best explained in his own words.

“I believe that the best way to 'evangelise' for veganism is through food.” George D Rodger

GDR, 2008, at that time Chair of Council of the Vegan Society

CK: Could you please let people know a bit about yourself? Since when have you been vegan? And when were you active in the Vegan Society, and in what roles?

GDR: Around 1980 I became concerned about the environmental effect of animal-based food production and became a meat-reducer.  After a year or two I realised I was hardly ever eating meat, fowl or fish, and so I declared myself a vegetarian and joined The Vegetarian Society of the UK.  Even at that time I realised that true vegetarianism was veganism and I was soon consuming very little in the way of dairy products (except I found cheese particularly hard to give up!). 

In 1992, after about ten years as a vegetarian, I finally declared myself a vegan and joined The Vegan Society.  I had just been granted early retirement from teaching on a pension I could just about survive on; I was looking for ways to usefully occupy my time and decided to become active in either The Vegetarian Society or The Vegan Society, having had previous experience of committee work in various clubs and societies.  So I studied both of their magazines and attended the Annual General Meeting (AGM) of each of them.  I also attended the annual Vegan Camp run by John Strettle of Newcastle and made many friends there some of whom are still friends of mine to this day.  (I was at the Vegan Camp every year for about eight or nine years, in different parts of the UK countryside.)

I soon formed the impression that The Vegetarian Society was run by a fairly closed group and I could make very little contribution, whereas The Vegan Society looked as though I could be useful to it.  So in 1994 I stood for election to the Vegan Society Council of Trustees and was elected (if I remember rightly the number of candidates was equal to the number of vacancies!).  

At my first few Council meetings, there was always one agenda item carried forward – a project proposed by Louise Wallis, who had stepped down from Council at the same time as I joined it; that was the creation of a multilingual book, The Vegan Passport, briefly explaining veganism, for use by travellers.  I offered to take on Louise’s project, and Council agreed to that.  I advertised in The Vegan for offers of translations from members who were bilingual or multilingual.  I expected we might get maybe 12 or so languages, in fact we got 37!  After the book was published for a first time, I kept it active as an ongoing project; the last edition I compiled had about 70 languages!  (Since I stood down from Council, the entire book has been revised, using professional translators.) 

I was off Council for a while when I failed to be re-elected after my first three year cycle (Friends blamed me for being too truthful in my Candidate Statement!  I said I was vegan for environmental reasons, but most of those who voted were probably primarily believers in animal rights and did not like that I did not mention animal rights.  In fact, there is no contradiction between these two positions – it is possible to believe in both!), but I was co-opted when a vacancy arose, and was re-elected at the following AGM.  Thereafter, I was re-elected every three years, when I stood down by rotation. 

After a few years on Council, I was elected Chair of Council and served as such for several years; which included relocation of the offices from St Leonards-on-Sea, Hastings, to the Jewellery Quarter, Birmingham; also the recruitment of several Chief Executive Officers (CEO).  (Some of them did not stay with us for very long!)  During one spell between CEOs, I lived in Hastings for several months and did my best to cover the CEO function.  The only area I managed to cover with anything like efficiency was the important Trade Mark (TM) business, which led to me having a particular interest in TM matters for the rest of my time on Council.

After relocation to Birmingham, I was directly involved in recruiting a Head of Business Development, which covered TM business among other things, and convinced Council to appoint George Gill, who went on to do a great job as Head of BD, and is now the very efficient CEO for the Society.  After a few years of the Society’s time in Birmingham, I stood down as Chair, but continued as an ordinary Trustee for a few years.  When I stood down as a Trustee in 2015, I had served a total of 19 years on Council.  (I jokingly remarked that you get less than that for murder!)

I have made many good friends through my involvement with The Vegan Society and meet up with some of them when I visit one of the large national Vegan Festivals.  I am now a life member of both The Vegetarian Society of the UK and The Vegan Society.  

During my time as a Trustee, The Vegan Society’s staff numbers increased greatly, supported by a similar growth in finances.  Since standing down from Council, I have attended each AGM, as much as anything just to see old friends. 

It has been a great privilege and source of satisfaction for me to have been deeply involved in the running of The Vegan Society during a time of great expansion and increase in influence.  (Which in fact is still ongoing!)

CK: How did it come about that you did the long and famous interview with Donald Watson in 2002?

GDR: While The Vegan Society was still based in Hastings, with Richard Farhall as CEO, each year the staff always sent Donald Watson a birthday card (he was born on 2 September 1910), and invited him to visit the office at 7 Battle Road, St Leonards-on-Sea, but he always politely declined the invitation, saying that the cost of his travelling to the office would be better spent in promoting veganism. 

When I became a Trustee, I had to travel between my home in Aberdeen and the Council meeting venues, (usually in London rather than Hastings).  Sometimes I travelled by train, sometimes by car, when I could easily make a small diversion to Keswick, where DW had lived since 1951.  So I asked if I could call on him on the way home from a Council meeting, and he agreed.  I was Chair of Council at that time. 

When I did visit DW (aged 92!), he turned out to be excellent company, and well looked after by his daughter Janet, who lived next door.  I asked if I could interview him, and he agreed, so we fixed a date for me to visit again, with my portable tape cassette recorder.  When I got home after the interview I made a transcript and posted a printout of it to DW, to check its accuracy.  He made very few corrections, and I applied them to the printout [original interview, transcript from 2002: PDF; alternate link].  The original tape cassettes and a final transcript are archived at the [Vegan] Society’s office in Birmingham.  I believe they have all now been digitised.

DW was still pretty fit for his age, both mentally and physically, when I interviewed him.  I understand that he did deteriorate in his last year or two before dying at the age of 95 on 16 November 2005.  So I caught him just in time!

GDR, at a vegan festival in Birmingham, 2009

CK: In your interview with Donald Watson he mentioned that “Veganism always had an effect on my social life”, and when you asked him “What do you find most difficult about being vegan?”, he replied: “Well, I suppose it is the social aspect”. Do you know if his family, i.e. his wife and daughter/children, were also vegetarians or vegans?
Donald Watson mentions his childhood family, but I have never read much about his wife, Dorothy Watson (née Dorothy Morgan), who seems to have helped coin the word “vegan”, or about his daughter/children.

GDR: Dorothy Watson died in 1994.  I know very little about her except what DW said in my interview, and what his daughter Janet said at the funeral of DW in 2005, which I attended.  Janet was their only child, born in 1947, died in 2013.  As far as I know, the family were all vegan.  According to Janet, it was Dorothy and Donald who jointly invented the word “vegan”.  That must have been before the meeting of “The Magnificent Seven” in the Attic Club rooms, Holborn, London [1944], which founded the Society, as Donald used the title “Vegan News” for his duplicated newsletter.  He did invite (in that newsletter) suggestions for a better name for “non-dairy vegetarian”, and received a few suggestions, but none of these suggestions caught on and the term “vegan” stuck.

CK: As a follow-up question, would you agree that “it is the social aspect” that is the hardest part about being vegan? From what I know you have always been very active in organizing social events for vegans.

GDR: It used to be a serious obstacle, but has gradually become less so.  Even when I went vegan in 1992, it was easy to be vegan at home, cooking for oneself, but difficult when eating out.  It is now relatively easy, at least in large cities/towns, like Aberdeen.  Glasgow is now particularly vegan-friendly, the vegan capital of Scotland, if not the UK!

CK: Have you ever used the Vegan Passport yourself in a foreign country?

GDR: I have never needed to depend on the Vegan Passport myself when travelling abroad, although I always took the current edition with me.  I remember one year, early 2000s, I was staying at a small country hotel in Bavaria and all I could have for dinner every evening was Kartoffelsalat!  Fortunately, it was very nice Kartoffelsalat!  Travellers/tourists have sent me some stories about the usefulness of the VP, but I don’t remember any stories worth mentioning.

CK: The importance of supplementing vitamin B12 had been known to the Vegan Society since quite early on (I assume the 1950s). But it seems to me that in the 1990s (or possibly already the 1980s) this topic was neglected a bit, and many vegans (even readers of The Vegan magazine) ended up with a vitamin B12 deficiency. Do you think this observation is accurate?

GDR: I have heard that some of the early vegans died of the consequences of vitamin B12 deficiency, but I know of no records of that.  Vitamin B12 was not identified until 1948, and it was only in 1959 that it became possible for it to be produced in large quantities.  From then on, The Vegan Society has always recommended vegans to ensure adequate intakes, either as supplements, or in fortified foods.

I believe that the Plamil Company included B12 as an ingredient of their plant milk from the beginning.  Vegans who developed B12 deficiency were probably not following the advice of The Vegan Society, but I have no case knowledge.  Personally, as a vegan I have always used soymilk containing B12; I also take The Vegan Society’s own Veg 1 daily supplement, as “dietary insurance”; it contains iodine, selenium, vitamins D3, B2, B6 and B12, and folic acid in recommended (EU NRV) amounts or in excess of recommended amounts (1000% in the case of B12 !).  In truth, I consume far more B12 than my body requires!

GDR, 70th birthday party, 2010

CK: You’ve mentioned the environmental argument for veganism. In your experience would you say it’s quite rare that vegans give environmental reasons as their primary motivation for being vegan? And what about environmentally-friendly products that are not animal-friendly? For example, someone might raise and slaughter (and eat) their own rabbits in their garden, without any terrible consequences for the environment, but obviously not very nice for the rabbits. Would this be objectionable for “environmental vegans”?

GDR: Most vegans I know personally are what I call “cuddly animals” vegans!  I know that some vegans do keep rabbits – as pets.  (Personally, I don’t think pet-keeping is very vegan, but I’m probably in a minority!)  I know of vegans who keep rescued hens, and have problems in disposing of the eggs without eating them themselves; (the easiest answer is to give away (or sell?) the eggs to non-vegan friends or neighbours).

CK: Another question about the environmental argument: There are some animal ethicists who hold the view that the environment is not necessarily worth protecting at all, as nature itself is a terribly cruel place – much crueller even than humanity – and that humans instead should find ways to transform the environment to make it less cruel. Is that something you could agree with or find logical to some extent?

GDR: It is true that nature is cruel, although many dewy-eyed vegans have no awareness of that, but to suggest that humanity should transform the environment to “make it less cruel” is a bizarre concept and shows total ignorance of how ecology works.  The environment is very well worth protecting, as we are ultimately dependent upon it!  Humanity has already greatly modified the environment, through hunting and fishing, livestock farming, crop farming, mining etc, mostly to the detriment of the environment rather than its improvement.  The biggest danger to the world environment is overpopulation (of humans), and its consequences.

GDR, in the grounds of the Festspielhaus in Bayreuth, Germany, 2016

CK: Any more words of wisdom for the scattered vegans of the world in every corner of the planet? Any secret keys to vegan happiness?

GDR: The environmental case for veganism is certainly gaining traction.  The health case for at least certain kinds of vegan diets, such as that recommended by The Vegan Society, is also becoming stronger every year.  I believe that the best way to “evangelise” for veganism is through food.  (I do not believe that many people are converted by videos of slaughterhouses, etc.)  Aberdeen’s Bonobo Café provides 100% vegan food and drink and attracts a wide range of customers (predominantly young, cosmopolitan, and female-biased, all of which are, to me, good things!) not all of whom are vegan, but the non-vegan customers learn that vegan food can be as attractive and satisfying as meat and dairy produce and makes the prospect of going vegan less off-putting.  By the way, Bonobo is thriving as a business, although limited by the size of their premises; they sometimes have to turn away sit-in customers at busy times and have a large take-away trade.

GDR, at Bonobo Café in Aberdeen, 2019

CK: I somehow feel like the interview would not be complete without asking a question about Scotland. Apart from Bonobo Café in Aberdeen and the vegan metropolis of Glasgow, do you have any more Scottish recommendations for wanderlust-filled vegans?

GDR: Cities like Edinburgh and Dundee have good catering for vegans, small towns are a bit hit or miss.  “Touristy” areas generally have some sort of vegan café.  I recommend the use of the excellent website “Happy Cow”, which covers the entire planet – even Scotland.  When I checked, it had over 1200 entries of cafes, restaurants, shops, guesthouses, etc, all over Scotland.  (Over 650 for Austria, over 1000 for Switzerland, over 5300 for Germany.)

CK: Thank you very much for the interview!